Matthew Remski Births WAWADIA: What Are We Actually Doing In Asana?


This is a question I've been wrestling with in earnest for the past 3+ years. Matthew has too and I'll let him speak for both of us:

"...asana has obviously proven to be a splendid method that helps many people wake up to the presence of breath, focus, and sensation. It reveals interdependence in real-time. It teaches embodied receptivity and quiet courage. Like a parent, it swaddles the flesh with attention and warmth. It shows practitioners the hidden conversation between movement, poise, and the emotions. These are the gifts I am grateful for in my own practice, and grateful to have been able to share through teaching. They are precious gifts that I could never repay, and that I’m committed to supporting. 

Over the past century, practitioners of modern postural yoga have been learning, evolving and improvising an art form historically associated with somato-spiritual alchemy – not with ‘therapy’, as we might think of it today. The ideology of the Hatha yogis did not advocate radical postural and cleansing practices for long-term health maintenance, or for better managing your working life. They taught techniques for the destruction of those aspects of the body that they considered corruptible. Throughout their literature, they name ‘immortality’ as a primary goal, to be achieved through great effort and unswerving dedication to a guru’s instruction. They were not seeking — as most of us are, I believe — a gradual improvement in holistic health and functional longevity. They were seeking the ‘forceful blows’ of spontaneous alchemical transformation.

Metallurgical metaphors were dear to them: the flesh was to be heated, struck, bent and transmuted, from iron to gold, gold to diamond. They were into bodily modifications, scarification, and branding. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika advises that yogis slice the frenulum of tongue with a razor blade to lengthen the tongue, so that it can be curled back and inserted into the lower sinuses, presumably to tickle oneself into ecstatic sneezing. The long-term effects of this and other obviously dangerous practices are not discussed. Why? Because the tapas of Hatha yoga expresses a sacrificial paradigm, in which flesh is offered into the fire of intense experience, in return for another body, another self. This may be inappropriate for those who feel that this body and self is both quite suitable and irreplaceable.

Now, as Elizabeth de Michelis, Mark Singleton, Joseph Alter, N.E. Sjoman and others have explored, the links between Hatha ideology and modern postural yoga are exceedingly complex, confounded by a tsunami of transcultural exchanges in the late colonial era. I won’t attempt to navigate this territory in this short post. But the general consensus is this: in order to popularize their craft, the evangelical fathers of modern yoga (Sri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalyananda, Swami Sivananda, T. Krishnamacharya, and others) could only retain the postural and cleansing advices of the Hatha tradition to the extent that they appropriated them from practitioners they considered to be lower-caste, sanitized them of their macabre or sexualized aspects, and most importantly modified the underlying ideology from catabolic to therapeutic. This shift coincided with a rising tide of nationalist revisionism that sought to erase the humiliating image of the self-mortifying yogi, and transform his alleged spiritual madness into scientific and biomedical rationalism, while transforming his contorted and ash-smeared body into an icon of national virility.

But the retrofitting was not complete. The late Patabhi Jois kept the old blacksmith’s language alive with the saying: “With heat, even iron will bend.” To be clear: the human body here is being compared to a base metal, something to be transmuted. The vaunted heat, like all of the tapas/tejas practices dating back to the heroic mortifications of Vedic mythology, is not meant to be pleasurable. The pain is intrinsic to the goal. As Brad Ramsey describes his Mysore experience in Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students(2010):

I felt like I was being dismembered… My body was changed…When it hurts, put your mind on God instead of your pain, whatever your concept of God is – whether he is the great architect or the basic element of the universe, which everything is made out of… The series is just a mold toward a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe. I don’t think you can get there without pain. I never met anyone who did. For me, it hurt from the first day to the last, at least something. There’s always something…sometimes even to make the effort is painful…it’s the nature of the beast. It’s a birth process, really. 

  I've  gone through periods in which I would have resonated with such statements. Periods in which I really did want to dismember myself, as if I could get to the tenderest centre of things with a radical effort that directly assaulted the limitations I felt in all areas of life. But now I have questions. How should we understand this reification of pain? How does it square with the assertion that practice is positively transformative? How would a yogi like Ramsay even define a positive outcome? Is his a minority view? What is the impact of this attitude on on long-term health?

To my knowledge, BKS Iyengar doesn’t make a habit of publicly using fire-and-pain language. He has innovated an enormous range of therapeutic techniques. I owe all of my understanding of the use of propped support in restorative yoga to his lineage. One of his satellite schools in my home city offers anatomically-themed pre-registration classes that help many people who would never step foot in a typical vinyasa class: “Yoga for Lumbar Health”, “Yoga for Shoulder Stabilization”. But I can also testify from having studied with two of his senior students that while the no-nonsense, gruff, sometimes militaristic approach common (but not uniform) within that culture may not directly advocate for the necessity of pain, it implicitly invites it. Watching BKS or his daughter Geeta on video is very much like watching basic training for the infantry. It makes me wonder how harsh their approach is when there are no cameras around.

One of the most resonant correlations between pain, acute injury, chronic injury and asana has been the bias towards “openness”, “softness”, and all of the other values associated with the stretching aspects of practice. The list of compression injuries is long and devastating – stenosis, labral tears, cervical subluxations – but by and large most injuries involve a breakdown of tensile strength from lengthening actions that are virtually dismembering in intensity. Hamstring tears, gluteal tears, piriformis syndrome – it seems the back-body or the deeply-hidden body is particularly vulnerable. I’m interested in the relationship between this fetish for elongation and the process of analysis, in whatever form.Analusis, the Greek root, means “loosening a knot”: the bias in physical yoga moves towards a kind of undoing. The flesh and the “ego” come to symbolize each other as codependent knots.

Somehow, it seems, we would all like to be undone. But then here come the orthopedic surgeons, who are all telling us that long-term health sometimes requires tightening up. The problem is that I’m not sure that we know what we want."

Erin Jade